I am a 1L who is planning on applying for clerkships next year. I am concerned about the need for faculty recommendations. I have had lunch with most of my professors, but I am not sure that they know my name when a seating chart is not in front of them. What’s the best way for me to go about getting a good recommendation?
I didn’t apply for clerkships, but I assume the process isn’t that different from getting recommendations for law school from undergrad professors. Namely, it’s a demeaning exercise whereby you are forced to ask people who barely know you to judge you on paper. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that one of the reasons that I didn’t apply for clerkships (aside from the fact that I am not all that interested in the law) is that I didn’t want to have to ask for recommendations again. At any rate, you’ve already been through this process, and shouldn’t have that much trouble figuring out how to do it again.
I hear the best way to get recommendations is to research for a professor. This process, however, is accompanied by many perils and pitfalls. First of all, you may have to do actual research. Second, problems will probably arise if you research for a professor while you are taking his or her class. If you do, and you really suck as a research assistant, it’s possible that you’ll end up being too uncomfortable to show your face in class. I speak from personal experience.
I suppose another good way to get a recommendation, or at least a way to make sure a professor knows who you are, is to be one of those people who crowd around the podium after class or visit during office hours. I am not certain whether it’s possible to do this and keep your self respect, but many of the people that I know who routinely do this got great clerkships. I can only assume that great recommendations were part of the reason.
If either of these options seems too blatantly insincere for you, you can try to get to know professors as actual humans rather than as means to a recommendation end. I know this is difficult, since most Harvard Law professors are not actual humans. But some of them may surprise you. The most pleasant interactions that I have had with law professors (or with any professors, for that matter) occurred last year at 3L prom. I went to 3L prom with beloved ex-Federalist Society President, Brian “J. Edgar” Hooper, primarily so that I could do reconnaissance in order to make this year’s 3L prom better. (Which it totally will be. May 1st! Marriott Copley! Get your tickets in Langdell 130!) Hooper, however, was made uncomfortable by the surprisingly large turnout amongst his professors. Apparently, Hooper’s record for making appearances in class during his third year was only slightly less stellar than mine, and he was genuinely concerned that one of his disgruntled professors was going to approach him and start yelling at him in the middle of the prom for his lack of attendance. As such, whenever one of his professors would approach us, I would “throw myself on the grenade.” Actually, it was more like I was thrown, rather than throwing myself, since the whole process would begin with Brian pretending that I needed another glass of wine (I don’t even drink), then wandering off to hide behind Austin Bramwell and leaving me alone with his professor. This put me in the novel situation of conversing with a professor without being either worried about being cold-called the next day in class or uncomfortable about the fact that I haven’t done any reading since the first day of class or attended class for the last two months. Imagine my surprise to find out that many professors were non-scary, interesting people! I think the fact that many of them were slightly drunk helped. But the moral of the story is that I am still friendly with many of the professors that I talked to that night, thus proving that it’s possible to get to know professors without any pretenses.
I think the most important thing for you to realize, though, is that many professors understand that you’re in a crappy situation and will be willing to write you a recommendation even if they don’t know you that well. Most professors have policies about interviewing students prior to writing recommendations so as to get to know them better, so if you simply ask a professor who gave you a good grade or in whose class you contributed, you won’t have to worry too much.